How Can These Things Be?
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Nicodemous was a ‘leader of the Jews’ and is referred to as ‘teacher of Israel’. He is impressed by Jesus and Nicodemous appears to be seeking to learn more. But, he, like many of us, responds to what he thinks he knows. He hears and sees what he expects. This is a common place difficulty between Jesus and his disciples throughout the gospels. The people closest to Jesus did not understand him. They could be amazed, impressed and even dedicated to following Jesus. But most of the time, the disciples did not grasp what Jesus was trying to teach them—until after his death and resurrection. Jesus speaks of the messiah, the disciples think freedom from political oppression. Jesus speaks of being ‘born from above’ and Nicodemous thinks of birth canals. Given the common definitions of the day, both were ordinary assumptions—but they were assumptions that interfered with hearing Jesus. It happens with disciples in every generation.
IN FIRL, much like Nicodemus, we found ourselves concentrating on individual trees and missing the forest Jesus was describing. It is nearly impossible to discuss this passage without addressing what it means to be born again. It is a language that is often used as a litmus test of piety or more accurately, a test of compliance with a particular biblical understanding. When the passage says “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” it is easy to view this as a condition of membership and place the emphasis on who is a ‘true Christian. But I believe this is just a different version of Nicodemous’ literalism.
The Greek for ‘born from above is another. It can mean, from above, again or anew. So the meaning is not clear and it is often translated: “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” That was certainly the sense of the word that Nicodemous heard. Hence his bafflement. But as we are to learn, Jesus was not talking about a physical rebirth. He was contrasting spiritual birth and physical birth. Though admiring Jesus’ signs: “for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God”, Nicodemous misunderstood them. I believe the question ‘Have you been ‘born again’? as a criteria for seeing the kingdom of God is a similar error of focus. More often than not, it is a question which judges and separates rather than a question to engage discussion about our spiritual journeys. Jesus speaks directly to this problem at the end of our passage—but more on that later.
In my view, Jesus was trying to communicate that the way of the flesh focuses upon our physical lives and and our physical survival. The way of the Spirit offers us what is of lasting importance—what matters and what continues beyond our physical well being. Our bodies will not last. We will die. Jesus offers a life that gives meaning to our lives as we live them, as well as a life that matters beyond our physical deaths. The way of the flesh makes life about securing our own safety and self sufficiency. The way of the Spirit leads to eternal life. The road to Jerusalem teaches us that eternal life emerges out of vulnerability and dependence upon God. Ultimately, eternal life is no more connected to our physical bodies than our spiritual birth is related to birth canals. Jesus wants us to see possibilities beyond our imagination. He wants us to come out of the darkness and into the light.
It is hard to overstate how radical ‘coming into the light really is—and it is hard to realize how difficult a truth it is to grasp. Nicodemous can only say: “How can these things be?” He is so bound up in what he knows, he cannot imagine the new life that spiritual birth offers.
Jesus response is: “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” It is not at all clear to me what testimony ‘to what we have seen’ Jesus is referring to. It is possible he is talking about his confrontation with the money changers in the temple. In John this story is placed immediately before the Nicodemous story.
In the same way that physical life is about our survival and comfort and eternal life is about loving God and neighbor, the temple had lost its focus. It was more about ensuring its own existence rather than means to serve . The marketplace most certainly would help pay for the building but the marketplace did not serve the people. Jesus angrily said you have missed the point—“Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In real life, it is all too easy to confuse our institutional survival with our responsibility to teach and live the gospel. Jesus had just warned the people that the mission was more important than the building but that did not mean anyone was listening. The temple was so important that it was hard to imagine God’s work without it. The same might be said of our personal well being.
So if we can be told of earthly realities and consequences, yet still not change our behaviors, how much harder it is to believe the spiritual promise that eternal life can come by way of sacrifice, service and even suffering and death. That is just crazy talk. It is as crazy as imagining an adult returning to the womb. No wonder Nicodemus was confused. Such concepts are too far outside human functioning. Jesus said loving God and one another is the only thing that is eternal—whether we live or whether we die. That is the mystery of the cross and we prepare for that mystery every Lenten season.
We are all Nicodemus. We have to grasp what really matters. Our spiritual birth begins when we realize Jesus’ way of life. God so loved the world that whosoever believes that the cross is redemptive will find new life. He saves us by pointing us to that new life. And he saves us by living it. God offered us a way of love and peace—-not to shame us for our sinfulness and stupidity but to show us a better way. As Jesus says: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Follow him to Jerusalem. Choose life. Let it be so.